Ethnic Conflict & Enlightened Moderation

Dawn ran an editorial by Dr. Rehman about a week and a half ago, advocating a redivision of Pakistan into smaller provinces along linguistic lines to ease ethnic tensions.

It is hard to argue that grouping several relatively similar linguistic communities to construct two super-provinces doesn’t marginalize our other, smaller, largely mono-linguistic administrative divisions. And I agree that explicit recognition of Pakistan’s diverse cultural identities is an essential step towards facilitating a more equitable polity: the redivsion would give visibility and voice to our diversity, and a forum where, in a Madisonian sense, (balanced) factions could compete.

But in this Madisonian Pakistan, the sum of the parts equals the whole: the aggregate of the happiness of all factions equals the happiness of the Pakistani state. But – and maybe this is nationalistic to the extent of being fascist – Pakistan, as a nation-state has goals that would not always best served by these jostling factions. For example, the nation-state suffers when it loses territory (we could debate that, and I’d be willing to concede that “suffers” is not as simplistic a term as I am using it), even though the factions that comprise the state pre-secession might all be individually happier post- than they were pre-. The sum of the parts doesn’t equal the whole.

Tragically, my thought has become a little abstract now, and I’m afraid I have to continue down this road a little while longer. For the sake of functioning factional politics that serves the communities that constitute the factions, as well as the nation-state (abstracted from its constituent peoples), the factions must joust for power within a framework that limits their aspirations. This framework needs to be the ideology of the nation-state, its idea.

Now, lemme start another strand of thought: linguistic groups are not geographically confined and shared language does not indicate shared aspirations. Aspirations cut across linguistic, cultural, geographic and ethnic boundaries. In that sense, what is important is not restructuring Pakistan in a way that recognizes our diverse linguistic communities, but a realization that before we chop up the country, we must understand where the fault-lines lie. Factions, linguistic or otherwise, cannot properly serve their communities unless each represents a singular (or relatively singular) set of aspirations. Otherwise, each faction represents a diversity of views, making it a less potent advocate of any one set of aspirations.

To ground the abstract: since the inception of Pakistan, the need to establish a homogenous Muslim identity for Pakistan has preoccupied the state apparatus. And with disproportionate political capital resting in the civil bureaucracy and the military (UP-Muslim and Punjabi dominated, respectively), state-disseminated conceptions of Pakistani identity have suppressed the diversity of identities represented by interest groups less influential in these institutions. Without adequate representation, these Pakistani communities have felt written out of the national narrative. In response, at least those communities that have bought into the idea of being Pakistani, have established (continuously evolving, but) divergent imaginations of the national identity.

Post 9/11, the government sought to alter the trajectory of the Pakistani idea. The emphasis on a singular Islamic identity was abandoned in favor (favour?) of a pluralized identity, one in which the true Pakistani identity of religious tolerance (and diversity) had been usurped by criminals (‘miscreants’, as our media loves to call them). Here’s an extract from Musharraf’s speech from August  ’02 (lifted out a fascinating study of ideology-dissemination in Pakistan’s public education):

The recent attacks specially directed at the places of worship of our Christian brothers and sisters are the most shameful and despicable example of terrorism. All this in the name of Islam, these misled criminals and the terrorists patrons and tutors even have the audacity to think their actions are the route to Jannat. …

The new conception found immediate support among many liberal-minded Pakistanis, the enlightened moderates, the roshan khayals. Many among them, having been excluded from the Pakistani idea since Zia’s Islamization campaigns, had conceived their  own imagination of Pakistan that drew on the growing  movement of a shared Indo-Pak cultural history, a very “we are the same people” syndrome, that had been in force across Pakistan (specially in the East) for the last several decades. Manifestations of this movement abound; here’s a hilarious one I just stumbled upon: Zaid Hamid, crazy, khiska-hoowa, rabid-anti-Indian, as always, tacitly accepting the idea of a common cultural identity.

In the eastern ethnic communities, this India-centric imagination finds some degree of acceptance across the social spectrum. Roshal khayals of these communities who share this idea of Pakistan create relatively little intra-ethnic tension – regardless of how roshsan khayal a Punjabi/Seraiki/Sindhi/Muhajir sub-group is, it can find substantial linguistic and cultural similarities with northwestern India. In the western communities however, where cultural roots are found predominantly in Afghanistan and Iran, this narrative finds less traction. In contrast to the India-centric conception, the national idea in these communities can broadly be described as a multi-cultural imagination of Pakistan.

Despite a plurality of national ideas among the roshan khayals, the numerical, cultural and political dominance of the Punjabi & Sindhi (largely India-centric) roshan khayals overshadowed competing imaginations of Pakistan. This dominance was cemented by the new ideology’s silence on ethno-cultural diversity of this group, enabling the Roshan Khayali movement to be perceived as having a singular vision for the country.

This created a new schism in the non India-centric ethnic communities, whose roshan khayals were now perceived to be adopting an eastern-backed imagination of Pakistan that wrote their own ethnic communities out of the national narrative. This left the task of imagining Pakistani identity for these ethnic groups in the hands of the non-roshan khayals. On the other side, from the perspective of the groups whose cultural identity had monopolized the roshan khayali movement, other ethnic communities (diverse as they are) seemed to share little with them in terms of a national imagination.

To relate these details to my earlier thoughts: ethno-lingual schisms in Pakistan have been significantly exacerbated by the enlightened moderation movement. Its blanket treatment of all roshan khayals facilitates an easier othering of them (hello, Liberal Arts education) by their ethnic communities. The opposing conceptions of Pakistan that have developed unconstrained by a nationally-shared narrative, are more easily ascribable to particular ethnic communities, despite a diversity of national ideas in these communities.

A redivision that seeks an equitable factioning of Pakistan needs to recognize that ethnic communities embody no singular national aspiration as rigidly as the current political climate seems to portray.

Lastly, lemme say, I’m not entirely sure if I am perceiving the situation correctly – and I’d love to revisit this after I’ve invested some time into it. For now, I welcome your comments!